My daughter Rebecca-Maria asked me for a list of 20 very good books of nature writing. I generally like to recommend books to specific people. For example, some people particularly like animals stories, some like outdoor adventure. A few people read nature poetry. Some are interested mostly in philosophical and moral problems, and some in politics. A few people enjoy reading about environmental blight and pollution, but most of us only read these types of problem oriented books out of professional or spiritual need to be informed and warned. I am most interested in writing which deals with the whole of nature in some region, and which has rather complex literary value. I have listed 23 authors and several books for some of them. You might start by looking to see which books are available on line, or in paperback.
Extended Nature Prose Essays
1) Edward Abbey (1927 - 1989)
Desert Solitaire. N.Y.: McGraw, 1968
This is the story of a season which he spent as a ranger in Arches National Park. It is full of philosophy and adventure. Abbey is funny and political and grumpy all at the same time. He also wrote novels, some of which are famous, but none of which are as good as this. He also wrote many more books of essays but this is the best and the most coherent collection.
2) Mary Hunter Austin (1868 - 1934)
Land of Little Rain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903. Reprinted by Univ. of New Mexico Pr., Albuquerque 1974.
Lost Borders. N.Y.: Harper 1909.
Mary Austin is often said to be the founder of eco-feminism. She wrote very powerful and clear prose which seems appropriate for the clear open Mojave desert where she lived and taught Paiute and Shoshone children. These two books are sometimes published together. She also wrote poetry, plays which were produced on Broadway, and other good essays. She was most famous in her day as a novelist, but her novel, Cactus Thorn was so wildly powerful and feminist it was only published in the last decade.
3) Henry Beston (1888 - 1968)
The Outermost House: A Year on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1928
A well to do nature writer built a cabin at the end of Cape Cod and spent the winter there alone. It is extremely well written and thoughtful. Most readers feel they are actually there in the storms.
4) Burroughs, John (1837 &endash; 1921)
Wake Robin. N.Y.: American News, 1871
Winter Sunshine. N.Y.: Hurd and Houghton, Osgood, 1875
Locusts and Wild Honey. Boston:Houghton, Osgood, 1879
Fresh Fields. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1884
Signs and Seasons. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1886
Riverby. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1894
Far and Near. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904
Ways of Nature. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905
Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1907
Leaf and Tendril. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908
The Summit of the Years Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1913
Field and Study. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1919
Under the Maples. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1921
The Last Harvest. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1922
Burroughs was considered the best nature writer of his day (which included Muir) and one of the best nonfiction prose stylists in American literature. The annual Burroughs award in nature writing is named for him. His essays are no longer popular, but they read well and are full of deceptively simple nature description. His tone is strangely detached and his subject is not didactic. It is something of a wonder that he was so popular at a time when nature writing was wildly romantic and loaded with symbolism and morals. Try one of the above, many are still in print in paperback.
5) Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964)
The Sea Around Us. N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1952 Burroughs Medal
This is a stirring introduction to oceanography. It is fun for adults and older children. I do not recommend Silent Spring for fun though it is very well written and very, very important in environmental history. She also wrote other books of nature observation but this is her most literary.
6) Annie Dillard (1945 - )
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. N.Y.: Harper, 1974 Pulitzer Prize
This is a book about the nature walks of a woman who studies literature, theology, and the psychology of perception, and who loves nature but presents a challenging view of the harshness of even suburban ecology.
7) Loren Eisley (1907 - 1977)
The Immense Journey. N.Y.: Random House, 1957
The reflections of a paleontologist regarding ancient and modern ecosystems, and the place of evolution understanding nature. Moody, poetic and scientific all at the same time.
8) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)
The short essay "Nature" which can be found in most collections of his essays is very important in the history of environmental philosophy. This was the impetus to Thoreau and other early nature writers. Emerson was not a robust outdoorsman. He mostly saw nature when Thoreau (his student) took him for walks and canoeing. But he was the first American nature philosopher, and though this essay is very difficult, it is very poetic and moving even for most of us who can not really understand what it is about.
9) John Hay (1915 - )
Nature's Year. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961
The Great Beach. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964 Burroughs Medal
Sandy Shore. Old Greenwich, Conn.: Chatham Press, 1968
In Defense of Nature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969
Spirit and Survival: A Natural and Personal History of Terns. N.Y.: Dutton, 1974
The Run. N.Y.:Norton, 1979
The Undiscovered Country. N.Y.: Norton, 1982
The Immortal Wilderness N.Y.: Norton, 1987
Many literary natural histories have quotations on the jackets which claim that this or that author is the modern Thoreau. They are invariably wrong, probably because the person quoted either has not read Thoreau, or not understood Thoreau. John Hay is not the new Thoreau, but he is the closest thing to it we have. He manages to write descriptions of nature which seem true, and clear, and scientifically correct, and yet at the same time symbolic.
10) Edward Hoagland (1932 - )
Notes From the Century Before. N.Y.: Random House, 1969
The Courage of Turtles. N.Y.: Random House, 1970
Walking the Dead Diamond River. N.Y.: Random House, 1973
Red Wolves and Black Bears. N.Y.:Random House, 1976
African Calliope: a journey to the Sudan. N.Y.: Random House 1979
Notes From the Century Before: A journal from British Columbia, Berkeley: North Point Pr. 1982
Tugman's Passage. N.Y.: Penguin 1983
Hoagland is another one of the eco-curmudgeons who write clear, powerful prose about nature.
11) Diana Kappel-Smith (1951 - )
Wintering. N.Y.: McGraw-Hill 1984,
Short powerful but poetic essays from New England by a writer and weaver and sheep farmer in Vermont.
12) Joseph Wood Krutch (1863 - 1970)
The Twelve Seasons. N.Y.: William Sloane, 1949
The Voice of the Desert: a naturalists interpretation. N.Y.: Morrow, 1954
The Grand Canyon. N.Y.: William Sloane, 1958
The Desert Year. N.Y.: Vintage-Random, 1957 Burroughs Medal
The Forgotten Peninsula. N.Y.: William Sloane, 1961
The Voice of the Desert: a naturalists interpretation. N.Y.: Morrow 1971
The Great Chain of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1978
The second nature philosopher in American history, Krutch gave up his job as a Columbia University professor and powerful N.Y. drama critic, retired young and moved with his French wife to the Arizona desert when that was a much stranger thing to do than it is now. Some people think he was a major influence on Abbey. They did meet once when Abbey was a young ranger and Krutch was a famous old nature writer. He is widely quoted and still widely read. He wrote gentle, but insightful prose about very rough country which he traveled in the days before the desert was popular or populated.
13) Aldo Leopold (1886 - 1948)
A Sand County Almanac. N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949 Burroughs Medal
Round River. N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953
The founder of wildlife management science in North America, and the third and perhaps most important nature philosopher. But these are also literary books and fun to read. Deep and generous and warm as the fire he must have made after he finished cutting up the log which is the topic of the first book.
14) Anne Morrow Lindberg (1906 - )
Gift From the Sea. N.Y.: Pantheon, 1955
Mrs. Charles Lindberg, as she was known in her day, was not just the wife and copilot of the daring aviator, but a deep, thoughtful observer who felt refreshed by the presence of nature. Her prose is poetic and graceful and moving to many people today.
15) John Muir (1838 - 1914)
Rambles of a Botanist. 1872
The Mountains of California. N.Y.: Century, 1894
My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911
The Yosemite. N.Y.: Century, 1912
Travels in Alaska. Boston: Houghton, 1915
A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. Boston: Houghton, 1916
Steep Trails. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918
The Voyage of the Corwin
Wilderness Essays: Salt Lake, Utah: Peregrine Smith, 1980
Mountaineering Essays: edited by Richard F. Fleck, Salt Lake, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1984
The scientist, adventurer, conservationist, preservationist, and first president of the Sierra Club hated writing but he did a wonderful job anyway. These are robust, deeply spiritual wild wanderings. Follow him, perhaps the finest ice climber of his day, as he ascends frozen mountains, rides an avalanche or a tree in a wind storm.
16) Rutherford Hayes Platt (1894 &endash; 1975),
This Green World. N.Y.: Dodd, 1945 Photographs by the author. Burroughs Medal
Wilderness: the discovery of a continent of wonder. Illustrated by Frances Ellis. N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1961
The River of Life: the miracles of creation revealed in the world around us. Drawings by Bernarda Bryson. N.Y.: Simon and Schuster 1956
The Great American Forest. Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall 1965 Woodcuts by Stanley Wyatt. Many photographs. Scientific and poetic history of the forests, rivers and wilderness of North America during the last 100 million years including the destruction of the forest by pioneer clearing and industrial logging. Each book is like a gentle, slow walk in the mixed evergreen, hardwood forest with old Mr. Platt, one of Annie Dillard's favorite authors. The opposite of Muir, but just as deep.
17) Kim Robert Stafford (1949 - )
Having Everything Right: essays of place. N.Y.: Viking Penguin 1986. Special Citation for Excellence by Western States Book Awards.
Entering The Grove, Salt Lake: Gibbs Smith, 1990
Lochsa Road: A Pilgrim in the West, Lewiston ID: Confluence Press, 1991,
Son of the famous northwest poet, William Stafford, Kim Stafford treasures memories of wilderness and rural people and tells story-essays from the Pacific Northwest and Rockies, Oregon to Wyoming. Tight, skillful, clear prose about nature.
18) Wallace Stegner (1909- )
The Sound of Mountain Water. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969
Wolf Willow. 1962. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr. 1980
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West.
Professor Stegner, was an environmentalist, and a thoughtful observer of western American people and places. He was also a fine teacher, and the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University, which included in it's graduates Ken Kesey, Tillie Olsen, Larry McMurtry, and many more. His writing is always more historically than scientifically informed. People are important to him, especially people who work the land.
19) John K. Terres (1905 - )
The Wonders I See. Drawings by Walter Ferguson. Philadelphia: Lippincott 1960
From Laurel Hill to Siler's Bog. N.Y.: Knopf, 1971 Burroughs Medal
Scientific and quietly moving walks with a master naturalist and environmental activist. Terres has been a civil engineer, soil conservationist, field biologist, and editor of the beautiful Audubon Magazine.
20) Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers John and Henry Thoreau built a strange wooden canoe with four wheels for portages and set out on a two week trip up the rivers from Concord Massachusetts to Concord New Hampshire. After John's untimely death from tetanus, Henry went to the woods to mourn and recover. He wrote this book about the trip, as if the trip had only taken one week instead of two. Each chapter purports to be one day of the one week trip. This is the book which Thoreau wrote while he lived at Walden Pond.
Walden or a Life in the Woods. This book is the central text from which all American environmental literature flows and to which many books are compared. Most nature lovers own but have not read Walden because they are put off by the first chapter and because they take the book much too seriously. Like all great souls, Saint Francis, Erasmus, Shakespear, Leonardo, James Hutton, Einstein, and Thoreau had an active sense of humor. The first chapter especially was meant to produce merriment. It is also important to remember that Walden is more poetry than philosophy, and none of it is systematic philosophy.
"Walking" is a short essay published as a very short book. It is full of deservedly famous passages
21) David Raines Wallace (1945 - )
Dark Range: a naturalists night notebook. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1978
Idle Weeds: the life of a sandstone ridge. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1980
The Klamath Knot. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1983 Burroughs Medal
The Wilder Shore. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1984
The Untamed Garden and other personal essays. N.Y.: Macmillan, 1988
This man is one of the finest nature writers alive today. Perhaps the fact that his main publisher is the Sierra Club says that too.
22) Gilbert White (1720 &endash; 1793)
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. 1789
The Reverend Mr. White is the founder of the literary natural history essay. He wrote beautifully and was a skilled practicing field scientist. This is where all the other books on this list originate. If Thoreau is the father of nature writing, and Emerson is the grandfather, then Parson White is the great-grandfather.
23) Terry Tempest Williams
Pieces of White Shell, Albuquerque, Univ. of N.Mex. Press 1984
Coyote's Canyon, Salt Lake: Gibbs Smith, 1989
Refuge : N.Y.: Random House, 1991
An Unspoken Hunger : N.Y.: Random House, 1994
Stone Time, Southern Utah, 1994
Sacred Land of the Southwest, Monacelli Press, 1996
Most of her work is landscape writing of the finest quality. Pieces of White Shell is from her days as a teacher on the Navajo Reservation, and contains folklore and nature. Refuge manages to treat the rise of the Great Salt Lake, the pollution of Utah and Nevada by nuclear testing, and the death of her mother from cancer, probably related to that testing. It is a chronicle of sadness, rage, and the love of nature and family.